TECH

It's Almost Impossible To Tell If Police Camera Footage Has Been Edited

A slew of security features make it difficult for a cop to change a tape, but that doesn't mean you'll ever see the original video.

By now, most of us have seen the police dashboard camera footage of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Illinois woman, being arrested during a routine traffic stop in Texas on July 10. When Bland reportedly killed herself in her jail cell three days later, the violent confrontation caught on video was used as evidence of how the police department had failed her. 

Twenty-five minutes into the dashcam footage from Bland's arrest, a strange thing happens. A man exits a tow truck parked in front of her car, and a few seconds later, the video seems to skip back in time, showing him exiting the truck again. A moment later, it happens a third time. Meanwhile, the audio track plays straight through as though nothing odd has happened -- no skips, no jumps, just smooth sound. The video is full of strange loops like like this, which can be seen below. 

Since the inconsistencies surfaced on Twitter in July, journalists have been accusing officers of editing the footage of Bland's arrest. The Texas Department of Public Safety denies this, and attributes the problem to a glitch while uploading the video to YouTube. 

We trust video footage to offer an irrefutable account. But as more police departments around the country begin using cameras to document police work and start outfitting officers with body cams, it’s worth asking how easy it is to alter the footage.

The answer is multifaceted. Most dashboard and body cameras have strong security systems that make it almost impossible to alter footage without leaving a digital trail. But the efficacy of these systems relies on open access: If courts and news outlets can't access the original recording and digital record, there's no way to check that what you're seeing is unaltered video. 

Now, a number of public officials support the use of body cameras to expand the percentage of police work that's documented. The Obama administration proposed a $75 million program to equip agencies with 50,000 cameras, and the Department of Justice has pledged $20 million to expand the use of police body cameras. According to 2013 survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68 percent of departments used dashboard cameras, and only 21 percent employed body cameras -- numbers that are most certainly higher after the recent push. 

Part of the argument in favor of outfitting cops with cameras is that they don't just help document police brutality; they also help reduce it. Anecdotal evidence shows that complaints of officers using excessive force decreased in some towns after manning officers with body cameras. Unlike citizens with cell phones, the police are at every arrest, and outfitting them with cameras -- either on their bodies or in their vehicles -- is a way to ensure that every event is documented.

Time and time again, dashcam footage has proved the linchpin to determine the outcome of a case. On July 29, former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing, who is white, was indicted for murder after a body camera video revealed that he shot Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black man, in the head after pulling him over for driving without a front license plate.

Without the body cam, it was a cop acting in self defense. With the body cam, it was an incident worth a murder charge. That means it’s crucial that we trust what we see when footage is released. 

On most dashboard and body cameras, a range of security features make it almost impossible for an officer to alter footage surreptitiously. 

I asked representatives from Taser to take me through their body cam security system. The company may be best known for its namesake stun gun, but its Axon body cam dominates the market in the United States, where, according to Taser, it’s used by 95 percent of the major police departments that employ body cams, including departments in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Fort Worth and Philadelphia. 

As soon as a cop turns the camera on in the field, the device starts keeping track of what’s being filmed. The frames of footage are assigned a digital ID. At the end of a shift, when an officer uploads the footage, this ID makes sure all of the film makes it onto the system. The camera won’t erase anything until the downloaded film matches up with the digital record.

Running down the battery, or only uploading part of a video won’t work. Once the camera’s filmed something, the system is waiting for it.

The only way to end the filming is to stop the camera by holding down the off-switch for five seconds. “That is a very deliberate action when you’re in an intense situation,” explains Sydney Siegmeth, Taser’s director of public relations. Dashboard cameras require similarly decisive action, particularly since the officer has to enter a vehicle to shut them off. 

Once the footage is archived, the system starts a security trail of everyone who watches, edits, or otherwise interacts with the video. Taser runs a cloud-based subscription service, Evidence.com, for managing this kind of footage.

“Anyone who has access to the system realizes that just viewing [a video] means that your name is now attached to that file,” says Siegmeth. 

And while it’s possible to delete the original video, the record of who watched it, who edited it, and who, ultimately, deleted it would remain. "Let's say they use CGI to place a gun in someone's hand, and then try to present that video in court," says Peter Austin Onruang, founder of Wolfcom, a body camera manufacturer. "You can compare it with the original video -- which is filed -- and it would show that it was tampered with and the algorithms don't match."  

Dashboard cameras work similarly, downloading to a secure, traceable software system. Most record onto a memory card that's locked into the device to prevent tampering. "Other than playing the video through the software, and tagging it, an officer has no access to the recording," says Michael Baumann, digital video product manager at Data911, a company that manufactures dashboard cameras. 

However, none of these high tech security protocols prevent law enforcement from editing the footage that's released to the public. A pristine copy of a police camera video may be stored in a software system, but if the public can't access it, it doesn't matter.

The battle over who has rights to footage filmed by police cameras is just beginning, but currently, policies don’t swing in favor of open access.

The battle over who has rights to footage filmed by police cameras is just beginning, but currently, policies don’t swing in favor of open access. There are no national regulations that force departments to release the raw footage -- or any trail of data -- to the public or press. Neither body cam nor dashcam footage is accessible by the Freedom of Information Act, so the policies are left up to individual police departments. 

"Unless the public has the right to say, 'I want to see the raw footage,' it’s really hard to tell whether it’s edited or not," says Chad Marlow, advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and the principal author of the ACLU's set of policy recommendations for police-worn body cameras. 

And when a video of an arrest is released to the public, it’s normal for departments to make minor edits. The Seattle Police Department, which hosts body cam footage on a YouTube account, blurs the faces of bystanders for their own privacy. Such videos tend to be long; the video of Sandra Bland’s arrest clocks in at 52 minutes. It’s only natural for a department to clip the footage to the relevant sections before releasing it to the press. (The Texas Department of Public Safety eventually re-released the footage, two minutes shorter, sans glitches.) 

Many departments, like those in Milwaukee, Fort Worth and Ferguson, don’t expressly prohibit tampering with dashboard or body camera footage in their regulations, says Harlan Yu, co-founder of the consulting group Upturn. “Those are major departments, where they don’t expressly prohibit tampering in their policy at all,” says Yu, who is conducting research on body camera policy across the country. 

Guidelines released last year by the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services division recommend that departments “explicitly prohibit data tampering” and only use cameras, like those from Taser, that “include protections against tampering with data prior to downloading.”

But without explicit rules that ensure that the raw, untampered-with video will actually make it to the public, there's no way to evaluate whether something you're watching is really accurate.

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